Oh yeah, that movie from that director. The movie that just became the highest grossing film of all time, toppling…the previous movie from that same director.
I know I’m probably late to the game with my review of James Cameron’s Avatar, even if it’s only been in theaters for barely six weeks. And I initially wasn’t going to review it, but just see it to be part of what’s being called cinematic history by some.
But then I left the theater, came right home, and started typing…
On the planet Pandora, a native race of blue, ten-foot-tall, human-esque creatures called the Na’vi live in a giant tree atop the planet’s largest (and only) deposit of the rich, valuable mineral Unobtainium. A team of humans from Earth have descended on Pandora to mine the Unobtainium, but the Na’vi have refused to move or cooperate. Instead, a dedicated scientist (Sigourney Weaver) is heading up a peaceful solution: creating life-size Na’vi “avatars” from their DNA, then having humans bond with the avatars via brainwaves and enter the Na’vi world to communicate with them. Bristling at the chance to resolve the standoff a lot quicker (read: more violently) are a gung-ho, bloodthirsty colonel (Stephen Lang) and an all-about-numbers bureaucrat (Giovanni Ribisi) running the operation.
One of the people enrolled in the Avatar program is paralyzed Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) – who, upon entering the world of the Na’vi, is guided and taught by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female Na’vi member and daughter of their tribal leaders. Sully’s orders are to infiltrate the Na’vi and learn their ways so the Marines can launch a successful strike if needed, but as his feelings grow for the Neytiri and the Na’vi way of life, where will his loyalties lie?
There seem to be three main things people talk about regarding Avatar, so I’ll address them first:
1. The 3-D experience. The 3-D aspect is quite compelling (though admittedly, my only basis for comparison for movie theater 3-D is 1983’s Jaws 3-D). While not critical to viewing the film, it provides both subtle and grandiose levels of depth, from Marines getting a lecture in a mess hall to the action sequences on Pandora.
2. The special effects. Believe what you’ve heard about Avatar’s FX: They’re truly phenomenal. The scenery is awe-inspiring, providing an alternate world that’s rich in color and design. The Na’vi are a milestone in moviemaking: Every body movement, every facial expression and tic, is truly lifelike. (Cameron had the actors wear motion capture devices, including high-tech cameras capturing every move of their face.)
3. The environmental message. Cameron is a self-described treehugger, and it’s impossible to ignore that label as Avatar unfolds. Many of the creatures on Pandora are deliberate derivatives of creatures on Earth (no doubt to make us relate to the similar animals here at home). And when Neytiri teaches Sully how to tame and ride the wild animals of Pandora, she speaks of the literal “bond” one must make with their animal, where a Na’vi intertwines part of its body with that of the creature. (This “bond with nature” metaphor is impossible to miss.) And c’mon, the place the Na’vi call home is a giant, iconic tree, for Pete’s sake.
With Avatar, Cameron once again creates strong female characters in his film – the fearless Neytiri, her mother and Na’vi spiritual leader Moat (CCH Pounder), head scientist Weaver, and Marine chopper pilot Michelle Rodriguez.
Like other Cameron films, the quality of his script trails that of his direction: It’s very good, but some of Worthington’s narrative sounds like it comes from a dime-store pulp novel, and Cameron has characters say clichéd lines like “I didn’t sign up for this sh*t” and, when a main character is gravely wounded, declares, “Well, that’s going to ruin my day.” Also, the precious mineral the humans want under the Na’vi home tree is called Unobtainium – because it’s so unobtainable, get it?
In addition, several aspects of Avatar’s plot and framework seem cribbed from other films, including Cameron’s own body of work. The plot largely resembles Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas (Native American actor Wes Studi even plays the strongest Na’vi warrior), and the story structure is nothing new: It’s the old “I came to your world to do something evil, but then I fell in love with you and even though I ruined everything, you have to believe I have true feelings for you” story. (That architecture can be found anywhere from the latest ho-hum romantic comedy to a Very Special Episode of a sitcom.) Regarding Cameron’s own films, you can see shades of The Abyss (scientists want to communicate with a life form, military guys want to destroy it) and Aliens (Avatar’s giant military robots commandeered by the Marines are simply the next generation of the robo-forklifts Weaver’s Ripley used to defeat the alien queen bee).
Despite these debits, Cameron does offer a couple of twists you don’t expect. Some things you think are “givens” are not – and to Cameron’s credit he pushes them through, taking you out of your comfort zone and gearing you up for the climactic battle sequence, which truly has to be seen to be believed.
Avatar is essential viewing for anyone who takes their movies seriously. Whether you love it, like it, hate it, think it’s too long or too preachy, you’ll be a better film-goer from the experience.
Is it suitable for your kids?Avatar is rated PG-13: There are many profanities (no F-bombs), some intense action and war sequences, and the body count rises substantially during the final battle. I saw a mother in the theater with three kids – I’m guessing ages 10, 8, and 6 – and the 6-year-old girl sat curled up in her mother’s lap the whole time, not even bothering to put on the 3-D glasses. I’d say tweens and older should be okay (tween boys will probably eat up all the fantasyland action and Marine weaponry).
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?Like I said earlier: If you’re a true movie fan, Avatar is essential viewing. Even if it doesn’t become one of her all-time favorite films, you owe it to her to make sure she sees it at least once.
* Director: James Cameron
* Screenwriter: James Cameron
* Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez
* MPAA Rating: PG-13